3 seasons ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut ties with then 30-year-old defensive lineman Steve McLendon. The Steelers had possibly figured McLendon’s best football days were behind him. His contract was up, and they didn’t think that he would be worth the amount of money he could command on the free agent market. Before McLendon was a Jet, he was a six-year Steeler. However, he never amassed more than 33 total tackles and 2 sacks in any one season in Pittsburgh. In fact he had 21 or fewer total tackles and no more than a single sack in his other five seasons with Pittsburgh.
Sometimes, a player just needs a change of scenery. Perhaps he wasn’t utilized properly with his old team, maybe he wasn’t properly motivated, or maybe the new team and a fresh start was the motivation he needed. There are a myriad of factors as to why this phenomenon can occur, and it does occur. McLendon is a great example of this.
As a Steeler, McLendon was an average player. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t great. He was however, a steady force in the trenches and a good run stuffer. From 2012-2015, the Jets had an excellent run stuffer and a massive force in the trenches in Damon “Snacks” Harrison. His contract was up in 2015 and after 3 big seasons with the Jets, he was ready to cash in. The Jets knew he was worth the money he was commanding, but were outbid by the Giants. So, in 2016, the Jets let Harrison walk, and decided to bring in a much cheaper option in McLendon.
Since joining the Jets, McLendon hasn’t been on Harrison’s level, but he has cut quite a niche for himself in the Jets defense. He has been far better than he was when a Steeler, amassing 46 total tackles and 1.5 sacks last season, and 3.5 sacks in 2016. He has been a consistent and steady presence in the middle of the Jets defensive line, and he is arguably the best run stopper on the roster. This is from last season, via PFF:
Steve McLendon was a force in the trenches last season! pic.twitter.com/PO8apTzROW
— PFF NY Jets (@PFF_Jets) May 18, 2018
As you can see, per Pro Football Focus, McLendon was a force in the trenches last season. For interior defenders in 2017, McLendon ranked 2nd in the entire league in run tackles for no gain or loss, behind only Grady Jarrett.
It turns out the Steelers were wrong about McLendon if they thought his best football was not behind him. In fact, quite the opposite. Even though he is 32 years old, he has shown no signs of slowing down or not being a presence in the middle of the line as can be seen from last season. Similar to many players before him, McLendon was underutilized and underappreciated for six years.
Even as a Jet, it’s not uncommon to hear fans say McLendon is too old or not very productive. He was the only player over 30 to survive the roster purge of 2017. Even when Eric Decker and David Harris were cut towards the beginning of the 2017 season, there was a belief that McLendon would be next, but he wasn’t. He responded with a season where he played above average football, earning an overall grade of 83.3 per PFF.
Will 2018 be another year of high quality performance for McLendon, or will time finally catch up to him and slow him down? It seems the Jets are preparing for that possibility by drafting 6′ 4” 321 pound Folorunso Fatukasi while also bringing in big bodied defensive lineman Mych Thomas who was undrafted out of Texas Tech and checks in at 6′ 1” 325.
In a perfect world, it will be another season of quality play out of McLendon, while Fatukasi makes the adjustment from small school football at Connecticut, and he has the ideal mentor to assist with that transition in McLendon.